I bought Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason as something of an impulse buy--it was prettily displayed in the store--but I had enjoyed Freethinkers, and am concerned about the sorry state of intellectual life in America (won't say "dumbing down," because I'm not sure it's really gotten worse).
Having read it, the nicest thing I can think to say about it is that I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if Jacoby hadn't gotten off to such a bad start. And even there, I suspect the answer is "no," since there are enough things to dislike about the book throughout.
First the bad start: Jacoby spends five pages complaining that some people have begun using the word "folks" where they might have used "people." This is bizarre. Words go in and out of fashion all the time without consequence. What's her position: that there is a transcendental rule that only "people" can be used to convey that particular idea? Is she shocked by the idea of people in the Spanish speaking world conveying that idea with "la gente"? There are many troubling features of our intellectual climate, but a single point of word choice that doesn't create the smallest confusion in thinking isn't one of them.
As I read on, I could kind of convince myself this was a minor lapse. After the first chapter she launches into history reminiscent of Freethinkers. I had a lingering worry about history being used for propaganda purposes, but tried to suppress it. I ultimately failed at that. I gave out during the chapter on the 60's, which was dedicated to arguing that the American Left is not responsible for our current state of affairs. To this end, she trivializes major events from that period:
The problem with that argument is that radical New Left activists never came close to attaining a majority among students, much less faculty, on most campuses--including the elite institutions that were centers of student protest and garnered the most extensive national publicity. At Columbia University, where the administration closed the school in response to a student strike in April 1968, only about 1,000 of the 4,400 undergraduates were actually on strike, and many fewer took part in the occupation of buildings. (p. 141)Are we seriously expected to believe that students shutting down a university would not have had broader aftershocks, just because the students involved were a "mere" large minority? The anti-war activists on my campus today can only dream of having over 20% of the student population backing their protests. This doesn't mean Leftist students are to blame for our problems: my response to hearing that story is curiosity rather than fury, but Jacoby can't find it in her to be even historically, curious, because that would undermine her rhetorical aims.
Once she leaves the history behind, the book becomes pure trash. The central motif that emerges from the book is snobbery. Reading Jacoby, I've come to see that snobbery is best understood as valuing the outward trappings of intellectual and cultural achievement, and feeling superior about it, while having no sense of what's really valuable in those areas. Such is the attitude required for mistaking a minor point of word choice for a sign of the End.
A major strand of Jacoby's snobbery is ungrounded rants against new media. I was initially puzzled by Jacoby's assertion that the internet would take time away from reading--made as if she is unaware that text comprises as solid majority of the internet's content. Then, on p. 262, she comes back from a section break by noticing this problem and giving signs she will issue a rebuttal. She even has the decency to provide a substantial excerpt from an enthusiastically pro-internet Wired article. Then she declares the excerpt "ghastly," and doesn't really bother to answer it. The final sentence before the next section break reads "I say readers get what they pay for--in time as well as money." Jacoby is too busy being impressed by her use of a cliche to see how stupid she's being. Literally, this statement is trivially true as long as one isn't defrauded or accidentally handed the wrong product. What she means to imply, though, is something along the lines of "new technology will never give us equal- or better-quality products more efficiently and at a lower price." Counter-examples to this claim are embarrassingly abundant, and include near everything that makes civilization possible.
On television, let me say this: yes, it's a tragedy that many people watch trashy TV shows when they could be watching great novels. But it's also a tragedy that Firefly got canceled, and just think: it probably would have survived if every hour spent reading trashy novels that year had been invested watching the show instead.
Not only is Jacoby snobbish, much of the book can only be described as anti-intellectual. Oftentimes, people with more academic qualifications than she disagree with her, and rather than providing serious intellectual engagement, simply acts shocked that an intellectual would disagree with her. This reaches its most absurd point when she mentions academic discussion of popular culture:
Courses in popular culture are extremely popular with students, and the faculty members who teach them argue that such classes enable students to "deconstruct" and think critically about mass entertainment. They are wrong. (pp. 314-315)Though Jacoby continues to heap scorn on popular culture for a few more sentences, those last five words are the entirety of her response to her academic opponents. Here, as in many other places, it's clear Jacoby hasn't bothered learning enough about her targets to effectively critique them. Learn enough about popular culture, and it becomes pretty clear that it really is possible to deconstruct popular culture in a way that prevents anyone from viewing it the same way ever again.
If we want to improve the state of American culture, we need to be able to make a convincing case that life is too short to spend watching "whatever's on."* We need to be able to show people the world of first rate literature, philosophy, science, and history. But to that, we need to be able to explain what's valuable in it, and to do that, we need to understand ourselves what's valuable, moving beyond a mere snobbish exaltation of the superficially sophisticated.
*Perhaps the closest thing this book has to a redeeming feature is Jacoby's discovery of a statistic that something like 43% of Americans are willing to watch "whatever's on," a finding unfortunately not given the attention it deserves.